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A Man of the Past for IG Metall's Future?

German engineering trade union IG Metall will elect a new leadership this weekend, hoping to end a crippling power struggle after failed strikes this spring. But is the designated chairman is the right man for the job?

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IG Metall's last strike ended in failure.

After months of leadership turmoil, a strike debacle and falling membership numbers, Germany’s once mighty metalworkers and engineering union IG Metall hopes to turn a new page this weekend. It is then that around 600 delegates will gather in Frankfurt to elect the union’s new leadership and thus take the first steps in guiding the battered organization out of the biggest crisis it in its history.

Der stellvertretende IG-Metall Vorsitzenden Jürgen Peters

Jürgen Peters

IG Metall’s designated chairman, 59-year-old Jürgen Peters (photo), is widely expected to be elected to the union’s top job on Sunday. But many both within and outside the union have their doubts about whether he’s the right person to lead IG Metall into the future.

For Peters, a left-wing traditionalist, remains a controversial figure after an ugly dispute over his role in a disastrous strike this spring. He is blamed for organizing a strike to cut the hours of workers in eastern Germany to 35 hours a week at time when unemployment in the region hovers around 18 percent.

That started a power struggle between traditionalists and modernizers in the union who felt Peters wouldn’t be able to help IG Metall adapt to the realities of modern industrial Germany. Although they were able to derail Peters’ candidacy, his deputy is expected to be IG Metall’s Baden-Württemberg district manager Berthold Huber, a modernizer who enjoys considerable power in the industry.

Though the duo is likely to be elected by a large majority of delegates, they will have their hands full from the outset.

IG Metall losing members and money

IG Metall, Germany’s second-largest trade union with 2.56 million members from the metal, engineering, coal, steel industries, has been ailing long before it launched its highly unpopular ill-fated strike this spring in an effort to shorten working hours in eastern Germany and bring them in line with those in the west.

Warnstreik bei Porsche in Stuttgart

Picketers at the headquarters of the German sports car producer Porsche AG, Stuttgart, May 6, 2002

But the strike (photo), which crippled automobile production across the country, ended in a humiliating defeat for the union. It also placed IG Metall in an unfavorable light with business, government and the public seeing it as further damaging one of Germany’s weakest regions at a time of severe economic downturn.

The result was that several members turned their back on the union: from around 2.64 million members in January this year, numbers have slipped by 80,000. The strike debacle also cost IG Metall financially, with the union forced to cut its budget in the current year by ten percent and expecting a deficit of €8.4 million.

The union also faces a tough round of negotiations at the end of the year with employers when they discuss pay increases for workers in the metal and electronic industry. Many believe the union's failed strike in eastern Germany has also strengthened the hand of the employers, who together with conservative and liberal politicians are demanding a modernization of nationwide wage agreements.

Citizens sceptical of union policies

But in addition to the failed strike action, many Germans have also been questioning IG Metall’s policies, in particular its unrelenting criticism of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s planned Agenda 2010 – a package of painful social, economic and labor market reforms that foresee among other things, reducing the amount of time that one can draw unemployment benefits.

A recent survey commissioned by Deutsche Welle television reflected the disenchantment felt by Germans towards trade unions like IG Metall. Seventy-three percent of over 1000 people surveyed said they found the trade union policies outdated out of touch with the times. Sixty-three percent of all Germans believed trade union policies led to job losses and even half of all union member surveyed said union policies likely hindered job creation.

But such anti-union sentiment apparently leave Peters cold.

In the run up to this weekend’s vote, Peters railed against Schröder’s Agenda 2010 and his Social Democrats and accused them of abandoning their roots. In several interviews, he urged Metall members "to become more political." Peters said IG Metall was a "bastion against neo-liberalism" and against the "rampant obsession with privatization." "We will become more political because the battle against mass employment will become stronger."

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